Welcome to part one of Confessions of a Reviewers’ interview with Canada’s very own, Duncan Ralston.
If you don’t know a lot, or indeed anything, about Duncan then read on. In this interview Duncan was kind enough to take the time out to give us some detailed and, eventually, honest answers to all the questions I threw at him.
In part one, tonight, we find out some general information about Duncan and his writing and influences. In part two, tomorrow night, Duncan will give us some specifics on his new book Gristle and Bone: 7 Delectable Tales of Terror and also take on the mighty Ten Confessions.
On night three as always, I will be posting my review on Gristle and Bone.
Nothing left to say other than go grab some nibbles and a drink and sit back but most of all……enjoy!
COAR - So tell everyone a bit about yourself in general?
DR - I've been called "weirdo" a fair bit, so let's start there. I like to push people's buttons. Generally I'm a bit of a joker, so for a long time I'd had trouble deciding whether to write comedy or horror. I still enjoy writing comedic stuff, but horror comes a little easier. I know way too much about movies, and I'm a bit of a music trivia buff. I talk to myself way too often, and make up silly songs about the things I'm doing while I'm doing them. Weirdo seems like a fair assessment.
COAR - If writing isn’t your main income right now, what do you do to pay the bills?
DR - I work behind the scenes in television. I've worked in Master Control in television for ten years. I roll live events sometimes, time out playlists, and watch a whole lot of TV.
COAR - Why writing? What made you want to tell people stories?
DR - It’s not quite hypergraphia, but if I don’t write for a while, I get the itch. I'm not sure where it came from; I used to prefer drawing, though I was never exceptional at it. I write for myself, and I’m glad to have found a small audience for my stories.
In my teens, when I first started treating writing as an everyday thing, I'd been sick for quite some time. I was off school, healing from surgery, and spent most of my days writing and reading. During that time I started several novels, and managed to finish a handful of short stories I really wish I hadn't thrown out. I think I used writing to work through the pain, to deal with my illness. Perhaps not coincidentally, I wrote Gristle & Bone after undergoing the same surgery almost twenty years later. Horror heals.
COAR - Take us through your process for a story. How do you start it and follow it through to the final product?
DR - It generally starts with a cool image or title. My upcoming novel, Salvage, began with the image of a man sitting in an armchair underwater. With a little research, the story of a submerged, possibly haunted town grew around it. The word "salvage" brought to mind salvation, and the idea of a '70s-era cult felt right. I wrote a full outline, and reworked it. I wrote the first draft from the outline, but the story changed as I got deeper into the characters and mystery.
Back again to the beginning, changing what was required to make it work in the new direction. It's a lot of going back to the outline, keeping what works, scrapping what doesn't. When there's nothing more I can do on my own, it's off to beta readers, then the editor, who all make suggestions. Rinse and repeat until you come out with something that, with any luck, resembles a book.
With short stories, I generally start with a few ideas, usually the ending, then try to hammer them out on the page. Sometimes it's easier, but there are a lot of stories I found I couldn't quite get right, no matter how passionate I was about the idea in the beginning.
I come from screenwriting, where the concept of "theme" gets rammed down your throat in every how-to manual you'll ever read. So if I can't find a theme within the first draft, it tends to feel a little unfinished for me, even if the story itself is done.
COAR - How do you keep track of your ideas? Do you carry a notebook with you everywhere or write stuff on the back of your hand?
DR - Most of them are in my head, taking up valuable real estate where a normal person might keep memories and day to day business. I use my phone most often, though I've been reluctant recently due to a new update resulting in all of my story ideas being deleted, including the outline of a new novel. Still haven't learned my lesson there: back up your files, people!
I used to write everything in small notebooks, which I still carry around, but I only use them in dire need. If a story's calling to me as I'm drifting off to sleep, I'll have to get up and write the idea down or it'll be a lot of tossing and turning that night. Many of my ideas come to me in the shower. I don't know if it's the sounds of the water, the isolation, some kind of womb thing, but when I'm not singing in there, I'm cooking up a new story.
COAR - Your website is very cool. I love that you call it “The Fold”. It has a very old skool horror feel about it. What is your “age” of horror? Old stuff? New stuff? A mix?
DR - Glad you dig it, man. I like the idea of my website being a cult devoted to me and my "manifesto," because in real life I'm pretty self-effacing and not at all conceited (although that almost sounds conceited in itself).
I mostly read older stuff. I've got a lot of catching up to do. I'd say the '70s to '90s is where I spend most of my reading time, with the juicy '80s horror boom right there in the middle. It’s definitely my favorite era for horror movies—I don't know if it's a nostalgia thing or if the movies were just better then. But there have been some really great ones lately, so hopefully that will continue.
Recently I've been reading a fair amount of new stuff, as well. I feel like there's been a huge resurgence in all kinds of horror with the self-publishing/small press boom, and a lot of it's really great.
COAR - I also noticed on your website reviews of horror computer games with one of my own personal favourites “Dead Space” on there. Is gaming a big part of your life? Would you ever combine the two and maybe write a script for a game?
DR - Gaming used to take up far more of my time, but now I spend a lot more of it writing. These days a game really has to grab me for me to sit down and devote 6 to 10 hours playing it. When I do play, it's usually survival horror. Dead Space is great, the Bioshocks, I still think Clive Barker's Undying is one of the best games of all time. And the Silent Hill series has been a huge influence on my writing. I don't think it's a coincidence both one of my favorite movies, Jacob's Ladder, and favorite TV shows, Twin Peaks, were cited as Silent Hill’s biggest influences. I’m also a sucker for the satire and action of Grand Theft Auto and belting out tunes in Rock Band.
I would love to write a script for a survival horror game, all someone has to do is ask. I have a feeling, with technology and graphics getting better, the need for writers won't diminish, as some naysayers believe, but grow so that story stays on par with the rest of it. I'm outlining a novel right now I think would make a great movie and videogame, but it's still in that "top secret" phase.
COAR - Can you tell us if any of the characters in your books are based on people you have come across in your life or maybe even yourself?
DR - There are definitely aspects of myself in a lot of my characters. My own habits, good or bad, exaggerated to their logical (or illogical) limits. I think Joseph Campbell was pretty spot-on when he wrote "every piece of us is in every person we can ever meet."
I will say that the two gangsters in my TV pilot script about the '70s porn industry are based on the sleazeball landlord I had in my first year of college, and his brother. They even have the same first names.
COAR - Who would be the authors you would give the credit of being your influences and who do you just not “get”?
DR - My biggest influences are Stephen King and Clive Barker. King's work taught me to enjoy fiction, and Barker's made me try my hand at it. My first stories were mishmashes of the two, attempting to mirror their voices. More recently, Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson and Thomas Harris get me going. In a way, I'm still trying to find my voice, still learning my limits, and I think that's a good thing. At the very least, I shouldn't stagnate for a while.
Who don't I get? I'm probably going to catch hell for this, but I've never been a huge Lovecraft fan. I find his characters wooden, his dialogue flat and sometimes outright laughable. I love his ideas, and the way he explores madness, and the stories are well-written, but I just can't get beyond that. I respect his body of work, which laid the groundwork for a lot of modern horror and "weird," and much of the writing he influenced I enjoy—Ramsey Campbell, for instance. But when I read Lovecraft, it's usually in a scholarly manner rather than for entertainment.
COAR - You have a plethora of short stories that have been published and your first full novel due out shortly. Now you have written a “long one”, which do you prefer?
DR - They both have their charms. I like short stories because it's easier to explore a single theme or idea, and to maintain a consistent amount of horror. I like novels because you can delve deeper into character and theme. Short stories can be easier to write, but I've often fallen into that trap: believing it'll be quick and easy, ending up with one false start after another. Salvage is my second completed novel. (The first I've locked away in story jail, and it may or may not see the light of day sometime in the next five to ten years.) Ask me again when I've got four or five more on the market, and I'm sure I'll have a more definitive answer.
That’s it for part one of the interview. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow night for part two when Duncan gives us more on his writing and answers The Ten Confessions.